I was first exposed to Lalla Essaydi during an art history course on Arab Portraiture with Campus Art Dubai 2.0. I was particularly intrigued because her art deals with Orientalism and the objectification of Eastern women as “exotic” creatures with little voice.
Orientalism in art history is defined as below:
“Orientalism” is a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S. It often involves seeing Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous. Edward W. Said, in his groundbreaking book, Orientalism, defined it as the acceptance in the West of “the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind,’ destiny and so on.”
Romanticism of any culture tends to be problematic, but this Wikipedia summary beautifully undermines exactly why Orientalism was reflective of the type of patronizing influence the colonial powers had in the Arabian Peninsula.
Since the publication of Edward Said‘s Orientalism in 1978, much academic discourse has begun to use the term “Orientalism” to refer to a general patronizing Western attitude towards Middle Eastern, Asian and North African societies. In Said’s analysis, the West essentializes these societies as static and undeveloped—thereby fabricating a view of Oriental culture that can be studied, depicted, and reproduced. Implicit in this fabrication, writes Said, is the idea that Western society is developed, rational, flexible, and superior
Orientalism objectified all cultures under colonial rule leading to offshoots like arabesque, hindoo style, Chinoiserie, Japonisme and Turquerie. Apart from the fact that the very naming of these movements is offensive at best, it is important (if obvious) to note that they were more reflective of the colonizing powers view of the Orient than the actual Orient itself.
I am particularly interested in the Western depictions of the harems and their perception of eastern beauty. Demonizing or romanticizing a culture through its sexual practices is one common tool of propaganda. It’s a theme present in history from the Greeks & Romans, to modern day demonization of sexually permissive or sexually repressive cultures. In the suffocating, largely strict atmosphere of 19th Century Europe, the idea of the harem was at once attractive and repulsive. Although having mistresses was a common practice in 19th Century Europe, the illusion of monogamy was upheld by most “gentlemen.” To such a society the idea that “gentlewomen” could choose to reside in a life of luxury, and share a common partner openly was titillating.
However, for Eastern women, then and now, this perception is a huge burden. In describing the themes of her work, Essaydi states:
But my work reaches beyond Islamic culture to invoke the Western fascination, as expressed in painting, with the odalisque, the veil, and, of course, the harem. Here is another way in which my work cannot be read simply as a critique of Arab culture. Images of the harem and the odalisque still penetrate the present and I use the Arab female body to disrupt that tradition. I want the viewer to become aware of Orientalism as a projection of the sexual fantasies of Western male artists––in other words as a voyeuristic tradition
However, Essaydi’s work itself, while echoing that tradition, mimics many of its features. The result, to the uneducated observer, is a rehash of Orientalism that serves to further exacerbate the objectification of Eastern Women and of Arab culture.
In this respect, I feel like her earlier collections like Harem were more indicative of the themes of Arab female Identity because they were personalized self-portraits that reflected a complex, individual experience and because they were such obvious parody’s of the Orientalist tradition that even a lay-person would find it hard to take seriously as a stand-alone aesthetic piece.
While I am unsure whether her work does a good job of starting a dialogue on the perception of Eastern women in Western culture or of the consumption of a flat “commercialized” Eastern culture in the West, I do think it is an important subject to tackle.
It’s also a theme that is particularly important in a world where the commercial ideal beauty is still tall, skinny and white. Eastern women, when depicted are in the role of an “exotic” creature devoid of the complexity of their white counterparts. And I think that this perception creates huge problems both for Caucasian women and these eroticized “other” women. To this aspect, Lalla Essaydi’s work is momentous because to some extent or the other, it is a woman describing her experience of her sexuality in a “foreign” culture.